Friday, October 16, 2020

A cyclist's place is anywhere but here

 Have you ever had someone do something that you did not ask them to do and then expect you to be conspicuously grateful for it afterwards?

In the confined space of the Cotton Valley Trail, user groups come into conflict even more than on a more conventional multi-use path. Because of the poor design, with the rails left in place, walkers, runners, and all the different types of bikes are squeezed into a space less than five feet wide for long stretches. People manage to make it work because the trail route is often attractive and sometimes convenient. It's a nice cross-section of this part of the Lakes Region, and if you happen to live within a few degrees of its course, it can serve as part of a transportation cycling corridor. I use it for a small part of my park and ride option. Before COVID-19 I used more of it.

The tight confines of the path mean that people getting out for some fresh air have to squeeze past each other in clouds of breath that might or might not be a problem in the open setting. During the longer daylight I quit using it entirely, because it was full of other traffic. Some people thought that cyclists were massive germ-foggers. Other quick studies seemed to indicate that speed and turbulence would dissipate infectious clouds. But why put up with reproving looks and a tangle of wide handlebars if you don't have to? I went back to my old, old, pre-path road route to leave Wolfeboro.

At the best of times, a rider would encounter pedestrians who expected more than a pleasant hello from a passing cyclist. One time it was Woman with Fluffy Dog, who saw me coming, reeled in Fluffy's extended leash, and gathered the dog protectively against her legs as she stepped out of the railed section on the causeway and stopped.

"You're welcome!" she shouted at me as I rolled carefully past her.

Another time it was an older couple. They weren't elderly in the sense of wobbling on frail legs, but they were definitely toward the silver end of middle age. They, too, went out of their way to clear much more space than necessary, and sprayed that acidic, "you're welcome!" at me as I rode by. And there have been others.

No pedestrian is ever glad to see a cyclist. Most cyclists aren't too glad to see each other in the miles of jousting required by the narrow path. You never appreciate just how little a whole train sits on until you've tried to manage two-way bike traffic with 31-inch handlebars in 56 inches of trail width.

Yep: 56 inches. Actually 56.5, but you don't notice the half inch when two sets of 31-inch handlebars already add up to 62. Mind you, we don't all have 31-inch bars, but lots of upright bikes have bars that are above 25 inches. Theoretically, a rider can put the tires right along the edge and have almost half the width of the bars hanging out to the right, but the poorly-maintained stone dust surface of the path itself can make the edge much less attractive than the middle. In a railed section, a rider doesn't want to risk catching the rail and getting dumped in places where the landing is often a steep and rocky slope.

Every pedestrian I meet on the path looks unhappy about it. The best of them look fairly neutral and might return a greeting. On average, they all look a little aggrieved. Some really have a chip on their shoulder.

On Wednesday morning, in a narrow, overgrown section outside the rails but still squeezed by the uncontrolled plant growth on the sides, I was headed into town as a runner came toward me outbound. He looked to be in his forties at the latest, fit and strong, with some flashy shoes. The path comes out of one of the few slightly bendy bits and into this straightaway slightly below the level of the rails running beside it. I slowed many yards ahead of where we would pass, decelerating gradually so that the approach would not take an awkwardly long time.

The runner stopped abruptly, turned sharply to his left and mounted the small step up to the tracks. He stopped, turned, and snapped, "You're welcome!"

If I hadn't been hurrying to get to work I would have stopped and asked him if he wanted to pull his shorts down before I kissed his ass, but there was no time for extended conversation. I was quite surprised that this new demographic had been added to the "you're welcome" profile. Youngish fit dudes are usually among the most stoic when it comes to putting up with the annoying presence of cyclists.

The very next day provided the perfect counterpoint to the whiny runner. In exactly the same stretch, in almost exactly the same spot, I came down to meet a middle-aged couple walking the other way. For some reason, the woman was walking up on the tracks. Equally unaccountably, when she saw me coming she left that safe perch to climb down into the trailway to walk behind the man, so that we could all experience the inconvenience. Their looks radiated the usual annoyance and resentment with which pedestrians greet cyclists, but we singled out, we slithered past each other, and no one said anything, because we're goddam adults. We all know that the path has this glaring flaw. The best of us just deal with it.

My handlebars are the width of my shoulders. On the Cross Check I take up no more width than I would on foot. When I do walk on the path, I go outside the rails whenever I can, and always give room to riders without any desire for anyone to make a big time about it. On my mountain bike, the bars are wider, but I put them on well before the 31-inch standard became common. They're maybe 24 inches. The fat tires make the bike a little more secure hugging the edge. I've also hopped the rail on it and ridden the rough sides where I could. At no time do I demand any recognition for handling unplanned encounters in a mature and cooperative fashion.

I've heard the stories about highly unpleasant riders ripping through groups on foot, tossing obscenities in response to complaints. The whiny runner might lump me in that category because the only single word answer I could come up with to his sarcastic, "you're welcome" was "smartass." Even as I said it I knew it was inadequate to convey the full spectrum of issues opened up by his absolutely unnecessary and unrequested sacrifice. A variety of other epithets would have applied, but come no closer to defining the exact emotional blackmail contained in "you're welcome."

On the road, expressions of disapproval or demonstrations of asymmetrical power are more variable, because faces are so often obscured, and the vehicles involved are moving faster. I prefer it that way. Decades ago I abandoned the fallacy that eye contact helps. Too often I saw expressions or invited elaborations from a motorist that I would prefer not know about. Now I let the reflections on window glass hide the human occupants and my own sunglasses and helmet form part of an expressionless wall on my face. The style of a driver's passing says enough. While drivers this season have been mostly very good, I still know that they will invariably squeeze past me at intersections and tend to pass at speed, as soon as they encounter me, rather than wait for a safe break in any oncoming traffic.

A driver yesterday illustrated that some drivers don't understand how an obstruction in their lane is their responsibility. I popped out of the parking lot from work onto Mill Street, behind a small SUV. We both had to slow down because a delivery truck partially blocked our lane. A motorist was coming the other way in the unblocked lane. They were absolutely correct in doing so, but the driver of the SUV in front of me laid on the horn with a long blast because she thought that she should have been allowed to swing out around the delivery truck without having to wait. Motorist entitlement squared. These are the people a rider has to function with, along with the anonymous majority who just get on by and don't make a fuss about it.


Rob in VA said...

The longest greenway through the city in which I live (about 8 miles long) is much wider, averaging closer to 10 feet. Although the additional width helps to de-escalate most encounters, inconsiderate users of all types manage to make the worst of it sometimes. Some dog walkers believe that their retractable leashes were made to be retracted only when their walk is concluded; some groups walking for exercise are convinced they have every right to walk 4 or 5 abreast, consuming the entire width, regardless of passing or opposing traffic; solo runners/joggers are as often as not completely lost in the music blaring through their headphones, and you are left to guess whether they even heard your "passing left" outcry or your warning bell. Though strictly prohibited, on rare occasion, you will even encounter a moped or ATV. C'est la vie, I guess.

anniebikes said...

Understandably we're all trying to be outdoors this year which has shown how inadequate many of our paths unfortunately are. Instead of frequenting our waterfront path, I bought a mountain bike this year for alternative, less crowded riding. It pays to be kind and ride single file and always defer to walkers, I would think. Thanks go a long ways.

Steve A said...

Perhaps she was honking at the unoccupied delivery truck in the belief it possessed an independent ability and inclination to move aside when she was displeased?